John Romani stood in an immaculate Chestnut Hill living room overflowing with tchotchkes — the Hummel figurines, the porcelain and the Italian-made furniture. It looked, Romani thought, like a time capsule of a 1970s Philly rowhouse. The only thing missing was the plastic on the couches.
And Romani, who regularly handles the sale of multimillion-dollar estates — of pro athletes and Main Line aristocrats — wasn't sure that any of it would match the prices he's used to fetching.
Then he remembered the ace up his sleeve. "The Frank Tax," he said, laughing.
As in Frank Rizzo.
Romani was standing in the Chestnut Hill manse of the former police commissioner and mayor, whose hulking shadow still hangs over Philadelphia politics and public life. Romani found himself in an office that looked like it hadn't been touched since 1991 — when Rizzo had a fatal heart attack at his campaign headquarters — staring at the man's Rolodex.
As intriguing as it was to Romani — a former Philly public school history teacher and son of a suburban cop — he's more used to dealing in Steinways and $10,000 rugs, not Royal Doulton sets that normally go for $20 apiece. But he knew what would happen when he posted photos of the estate's items online early this month and advertised that Frank Rizzo's house was up for sale.
His inbox blew up. His phone didn't stop ringing. Italian grandmothers from South Philly asked if Frank's bed was for sale. "We want to make the pilgrimage," one woman told Romani. Restaurant owners claimed they'd served Frank's favorite gnocchi. Retired cops bragged about being at his sides in the streets, and at the most coveted seat in the city — at Rizzo's breakfast table.
"They just feel like they're buying a piece of the dream," said Romani, who runs Sales by Helen with his mother. "They'll take anything. They'll take a business card. They'll take a mug. It's just a mug, but it's a mug Frank drank out of."
Pics with the queen
The call came in August from Franny Rizzo, Frank's son, the former city councilman. Rizzo's widow, Carmella, had died at the age of 101. The family wanted to sell the house, which is itself a piece of controversial history: A firestorm erupted when Rizzo bought the 8,000-square-foot house for 90 grand in 1973; the mayor's salary was only $40,000 a year. He somehow managed to finance $410,000 worth of upgrades to the house, including a walk-in fridge in the basement that, when Romani opened it, was still full of what he assumed was victory champagne from the 1970s.
Aside from a few family mementos and paperwork related to the 1979 papal visit, which they were donating to the church, the Rizzos wanted the place cleared out.
Which means almost everything must go — business cards, cologne, alarm clocks with Rizzo's name plated in gold, trinkets from visiting dignitaries, even his rakes and garden hoses.
Romani is fascinated by the house, which is listed for $1.695 million, and the estate's complicated legacy. His dad, a progressive, had respect for Rizzo but wasn't a devotee, he says.
There were no portraits of Rizzo at home, like the kind his relatives and friends adorned their walls with in South Philly. ("But me and my friends did walk around saying 'crumb-bum' all the time,'" he said.)
"It looked like a large version of every South Philadelphian house I was in as a kid," he said. But the history of the house kept revealing itself to him. And then he would open a door into the basement and find a cedar wardrobe full of Rizzo's suits.
There are photos of Rizzo and the queen, of J. Edgar Hoover. A signed photograph of Richard Nixon thanks Rizzo for his "respect for law." A bronze sculpture by the noted African American artist John Rhoden is a miniature version of the one outside the city's African American Museum. There are the tools that sculptor Jacques Lipchitz used to craft the famous Government of the People statue outside the Municipal Services Building — a statue Rizzo hated. After Lipchitz died, his wife sent Rizzo the tools out of spite.
Those tools could be the most valuable thing in the house. That, and the billy club.
Black Friday sale
This is where Rizzo's complicated, painful legacy comes to bear. Romani's not sure if it's the billy club the former police commissioner stuck into his cummerbund on the way to a racial disturbance in volatile Grays Ferry in the 1960s, immortalized in a famous photo. But it's a Frank Rizzo billy club, and that has come to mean so much lately.
It's a rightful reckoning that has us discussing anew the brutal, racist tactics of his police force — and how Rizzo was content to see himself become a symbol of racial resentment. Last year, Councilwoman Helen Gym and tens of thousands of petitioners called for the removal of Rizzo's statue outside the Municipal Services Building. Mayor Kenney agreed. The statue won't move for two or three years, he's said.
Romani is readying the house for the sale, which begins Nov. 23 and runs three days. He's always prided himself on giving his clients privacy, and considered not even advertising that he was selling the mayor's estate. That, however, would do away with the Frank tax.
"Wherever you stand on him socially, politically and legacy-wise," Romani says, "it's a piece of Philadelphia history."